Pets are helping us cope during the pandemic—but that may be stressing them out

Some pet owners are noticing behavioural changes in their animals, while also worrying more about their animal's well-being during lockdown, new research shows.

By Rachel May
Published 2 Feb 2021, 17:48 GMT
A therapy dog named Casey snuggles with Janice—whose last name was not provided—in Massachusetts on April ...

A therapy dog named Casey snuggles with Janice—whose last name was not provided—in Massachusetts on April 20, 2020. The Siberian husky has provided support for Janice and others in her household during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the coronavirus pandemic wears on, one thing is clear: Many of us are turning to pets to help us endure this challenging time in history.

In fact, as people remain stuck at home, the demand for adopting or fostering pets, particularly dogs, has risen worldwide, from Canada to India.

While the health benefits of having a pet are well known—from lowering blood pressure to reducing stress—the relationship is complex, and how pet owners and their pets are coping amid lengthy lockdowns is an open question. (Discover the surprising ways pets are good for us.)

To find out, researchers in Spain, Israel, and the United Kingdom conducted online surveys of pet owners in their countries. Their studies, published in three separate scientific journals, found that overall our animal friends have provided additional comfort.

But the research also revealed some concerning developments: Pandemic restrictions are making pet owners concerned for their pets’ well-being. Not only that, but some pets are exhibiting signs of stress, such as increased barking, fear of loud or sudden noises, and anxiety when at home alone.

In April 2020, Jon Bowen, a behaviour consultant at the Royal Veterinary College in London, asked 1,297 dog and cat owners in Spain questions about their feelings toward their pets and their animals’ recent behaviour. Most owners said their pets had provided “substantial support” during the pandemic, yet 62 percent of respondents said they thought their pet's quality of life had decreased. About 41 percent also reported observing behavioural changes in their animals during the pandemic, particularly dogs that had experienced behavioural problems in the past.

Plenty of research shows that dogs have emotions and can absorb what their owners are feeling—particularly if an owner is emotionally dependent on them, says Bowen, whose study appeared in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour in May 2020.

“It was really interesting that the findings of the three studies are remarkably similar,” says Emily McCobb, a clinical associate professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, who wasn’t involved in any of the studies. “They're very similar to what we hear here [in the U.S.], at least anecdotally.” ( If you’re chronically stressed, your dog may be too. Here’s why.)

“People are getting more pets and people are finding their pets helpful in dealing with isolation,” McCobb says. In her veterinary practice, “we are seeing that for animals that had behavioural problems, those seem to be getting worse,” she says.

New anxieties emerge

In April and June 2020, Elena Ratschen, a senior lecturer at England’s University of York, asked 5,926 people in the U.K. about their mental health, well-being, and loneliness, as well as their bonds and interactions with their pets.

The survey, published in the journal PLOS ONE in September 2020, included any companion animals, such as fish, birds, dogs, cats, and small mammals. Most respondents—including 91 percent of dog owners, 89 percent of cat owners, and 95 percent of horse and farm animal owners—said that their pets “constituted an important source of emotional support,” Ratschen says.

People who self-reported being more vulnerable to mental health problems pre-lockdown responded that they were experiencing stronger bonds with their animal during the pandemic.

In addition, pet owners overall reported feeling less lonely and isolated than those who did not own pets. This may be due to a “buffering effect”: Pets can’t replace our social interactions with other humans, but they can help fill that gap, she says. (Read how dogs are more like us than we thought.)

Yet both the Spanish and U.K. studies noted new fears among pet owners, including whether their dog is getting enough exercise, the ability to buy pet food, obtaining access to veterinary care, figuring out who would care for the animal if they got sick, and the uncertainty of how their pet will adapt to post-pandemic life.

Pups aren’t panaceas

Her results do not support a widely held assumption that pets protect us against worsened mental health and increased loneliness, Ratschen asserts.

"Evidence on the benefits of pets is mixed generally, both in research before the pandemic and during the pandemic,” she says, “because people have a lot of worries and concerns related to their pets.”

In other words, it’s not necessarily the case that getting a puppy will help you come through the pandemic in a healthier fashion, as many may believe.

Megan K. Mueller, an assistant professor of human-animal interaction at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts, agrees.

“Some of the media that I see is, ‘Lonely during the pandemic? You should get a pet!’ But it is more complicated than that, and the science is starting to bear that out,” she says.

Improving pet-human relationships

When Liat Morgan, a postdoctoral fellow at Tel Aviv University, surveyed 2,906 Israeli dog owners from March to April 2020, she found a significant increase in requests for adoptions.

The most striking result, Morgan says, is that almost 80 percent of people who adopted a dog in 2020 were already planning to adopt, and “knew what they are going into.” This suggests that people were not impulsively bringing a new pet into their home.

Similar to Bowen’s study, Morgan’s study also revealed that a person who feels their quality of life has declined may perceive their pets’ behaviour has also worsened, even if it’s not the case.

"It doesn't really matter if the dog objectively has bad behaviour, “ Morgan says. “What matters is the attitude of the person.”

More difficult behaviour, such as excessive barking, is one reason people cite for relinquishing their pets, she says.

Fortunately, the majority of the Israeli survey respondents—even those who felt their quality of life had decreased—did not plan to relinquish their pets, according to the study, published in November in the journal Humanities and Social Sciences Communications.

Even so, in the U.K. there has already been a reported rise in new pets being re-homed due to the pandemic, for reasons such as an inability to care for their animal or access to pet-friendly affordable housing.

McCobb notes that to avoid pet abandonments, local governments and nonprofits should support pet owners in need. For instance, some pet food banks have popped up in Canada and other countries.

Some pandemic positives

The experts stressed there are some bright spots in their research.

Despite the Spanish study’s findings of increased behavioural issues in some pets, Bowen says the data they’ve acquired across several countries since the Spanish study suggests that our pets are, for the most part, doing all right.

Bowen, like Morgan, cautions that respondents in the Spanish study evaluated their dogs’ quality of life through their own lens, and they may think that if they feel worse, their pets must, too. 

“But when you look at the effects the pandemic has had, many of them are not very strong,” Bowen says. In his survey, “hardly any dogs got new behaviour problems, and of those which already had behaviour problems, not that many of them got worse.”

Looking ahead, McCobb says, "It would be nice to see if we could keep some of the lifestyle changes we've had to make because of the pandemic,” such as eating lunch at home or spending more time walking our dogs. 

“The positives are few and far between,” she says, “so we have to keep them if we can."


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